October 08, 2007


The theme of this week's Goat Rope is the relative merits of optimism and pessimism. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

One of funniest and most telling refutations of naive optimism was the novel Candide: Or, The Optimist, written by the French sage Voltaire (1694-1778). Voltaire may have been moved to write this classic by the brutalities of the Seven Years War and the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people.

The earthquake struck on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, when many people were in church. It was followed by a tsunami and a devastating fire. This event caused quite a crisis of faith for many religious believers, some of whom came up with elaborate explanations vindicating the goodness and providence of God. Although Voltaire as a Deist believed in a somewhat disengaged God, he would have none of it.

His particular target in this novel is the Theodicy or vindication of benevolent providence of the philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716), who argued that this was "the best of all possible worlds." Let it be noted, however, that Voltaire's jaded view on this question did not stop him from trying to make the world a better place.

The novel tells of the misadventures of the young man Candide, his lover Cunégonde, and optimistic teacher Doctor Pangloss (all talk) over several continents, where they suffer from war, various kinds of violence and mayhem, the Lisbon earthquake, the Inquisition, and a host of calamities.

Through it all, Pangloss keeps maintaining that everything is for the best:

Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches. Stones were formed to be quarried and to build castles; and My Lord has a very noble castle; the greatest Baron in the province should have the best house; and as pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round; consequently, those who have asserted all is well talk nonsense; they ought to have said that all is for the best.


...private misfortunes make the public good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more everything is well.

After suffering the buffeting of fate, Candide observed that optimism is

the mania of maintaining that everything is well when we are wretched.

By the end of the book, Candide and his band are living a modest life in the countryside. Pangloss delivers yet another optimistic harangue, but this is the response he gets:

"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."

That's pretty good advice, whether it applies to our private plots or to the ailing garden we collectively inhabit.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the overall health of the U.S. could stand some cultivation. Here's an interesting article from the New England Journal of Medicine that among other things looks at the effects of economic inequalities on health.

HOW TO (NOT) WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE. This is a response to Blackwater from Iraqis.

STAGNANT WAGES. According to the latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute, "Since 2001, median wages in nearly half of all states have failed to keep pace with inflation."

SPEAKING OF GOAT ROPES, El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia is in the process of overhauling its Medicaid program, with lots of confusing changes. It offers a basic and an enhanced plan, but people have to opt into the enhanced version. The new basic plan offers less services than traditional Medicaid. There also seems to be a huge information gap. Here's some good coverage from WV Public Radio.

SENATOR BYRD ON MINE SAFETY. The Bush administration is called the "weak link" that has eroded safety for coal miners.

THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID. I admit it; I'm totally hooked on NBC's The Office. And I'm pleased to say that Dwight Shrute has updated his blog. And if you're really hard core, check out Creed Thoughts.

BABOONS THINKING. Darwin once said, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Here's a stab at it.


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